Irish nurse ‘one of the men’

Hard-drinking tomboy and clergyman’s daughter Flora Sandes received the Serbian Army’s highest decoration

Flora Sandes (right) - probably the first woman ever honoured with a commission as a combatant officer in a European army.  Photograph: City of Vancouver Archives

Flora Sandes (right) - probably the first woman ever honoured with a commission as a combatant officer in a European army. Photograph: City of Vancouver Archives

 

The Rev Sandes must have predicted it. Okay, maybe not the Serbian Army, but still, some form of military career. Even as a child, his daughter had prayed each night she might wake up as a boy. The last time he saw her, she was bound for Serbia with the Red Cross. The clergyman was more than two years dead by the time the Bulgarian soldier hurled his grenade at Sgt Flora Sandes of the Serbian Army.

The Sandes family had been in Ireland since the 17th century, when Lancelot Sandes of Carriagafolye, Co Kerry, served as member of parliament for Kerry. Flora’s grandfather was a former Bishop of Cashel while her Dublin-born father, the Rev Samuel Sandes, was Rector of Whitechurch, Co Cork, from 1855 until 1872.

Flora’s seven older siblings were born in Cork, her mother’s hometown, but the family had relocated to Yorkshire by the time she was born in 1876. Educated by governesses, she developed into the ultimate tomboy, becoming a passionate horsewoman and a keen shot.

By her early 20s, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Flora was also a formidable driver, powering down country roads in a French racing car. She trained as a stenographer in London before heading off on a world tour, aided by the legacy of a wealthy uncle. Having worked as a secretary in Cairo, she made her way to North America where she reputedly shot a man in self-defence in British Columbia.

Following the outbreak of the Great War, she headed south for Serbia with a unit of St John Ambulance. She arrived in the city of Kragujevac on August 25th where she was handed a sombre telegram – her beloved father had died two days earlier.

Serbia was in the throes of a humanitarian crisis, with wounded soldiers pouring back from the frontlines. Flora went straight to work at Kragujevac’s desperately under-equipped hospital and spent the next three months attending to the sick and wounded. She and fellow nurses slept on straw mattresses in rotation, with a single blanket between them.

Shortly before Christmas 1914, Flora returned to England and embarked on a massive fundraising campaign. Within six weeks, she had raised enough to buy 120 tons of anaesthetic, cotton, gauze and other medical supplies, which she escorted back to Serbia.

Typhoid epidemic

In October 1915, 300,000 enemy troops swooped into Serbia, forcing the Serbian Army south. By this time, Flora was serving with a field ambulance unit attached to Serbia’s Iron Regiment. Col Dimitrije Milic, the commanding officer, invited her to ride out with him to assess the enemy strength.

“The commandant seems awfully bucked that I can ride,” she wrote in her diary, “and declares they have a small sort of cavalry detachment of 30 of the best riders in the Reg. And that I’d better belong to that. They seem bent on turning me into a soldier, and I expect I’ll find myself in the trenches next battle!”

Sure enough, as the Iron Regiment prepared to withdraw, Col Milic invited Flora to stay with them. It was by no means unknown for women to serve in the Serbian Army and her ability to shoot and ride greatly impressed the colonel. And so it was that Flora put on the uniform of a dead Serbian soldier and enlisted.

Flora was with the Iron Regiment that devastating winter when the Serbs were forced on the Great Retreat through the Albanian mountains. She did what she could to find food and clothing for her fellow soldiers. Many were crippled with frostbite and, when need be, she amputated their toes with a pair of blunt scissors.

In March 1916, she returned to England on another fundraising tour. She was fast becoming a celebrity, hailed as “Serbia’s Joan of Arc”. The New York Times likewise applauded the “Irish Nurse” who was fighting for the Serbs. She collated her frontline letters and diaries into a best-selling autobiography, using the proceeds to purchase more supplies for her Serbian comrades.

By the autumn of 1916, Sgt Sandes was back in the trenches. On November 3rd, her company was ordered to charge the Bulgarian lines. Flora was one of the first over the top but a grenade exploded beside her, broke her arm and shredded her back and right side from her shoulder to her knee. She convalesced in Tunis where she took her ambition to be “one of the men” to such an extreme that she accompanied her Serbian comrades to a brothel. She was compelled to reveal herself when a young woman tried to kiss her.

Sergeant major

The Irish Times

Demobilised in 1922, she was not ready for civilian life. “I never loved anything so much in my life,” she lamented. “I felt neither fish nor flesh when I came out of the army. The first time I put on women’s clothes I slunk through the streets.” Col Milic was so shocked by the sight of his former sergeant in a dress that he ordered her to put on a uniform without delay.

In 1927, she married Col Yudenich, a White Russian cavalry officer, and moved to Paris where she chaperoned a troupe of Folies Bergère cabaret singers. They later settled in Belgrade where Flora taught English and drove a taxicab. When the Germans captured Belgrade in 1941, they imprisoned the couple. Flora was later released on parole, despite hurling “a wonderful fund of Serbian swear words” at her guards, but her husband became ill and died in prison.

After a stint in Jerusalem, she moved to Bulawayo in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) where she caused consternation amongst her white peers by drinking soghum beer and puffing cigarettes with the Ndebele population. She later returned to England where she whizzed around in an electric chair until her death aged 80 in 1956.